Okay, folks. I can’t lie. This episode was a bit of a step backward and a disappointment for me. What started as an intriguing mystery to follow along slowly devolved into stagnant episodes filled primarily with soap opera drama and mere tidbits of plot points that will move us forward. Three episodes in and I feel like we’re in the same place as last week – we know Maggie’s preparing for Africa, we know Dantana is wildly chasing a story that should ring alarms because it’s so difficult to find proper sources, we know no one is really taking Neal seriously in covering Occupy, and we know Jim is struggling on the road with the Romney campaign. Storylines that I thought could be closed were reopened, like picking at a scab that was almost healed. I love when the news headlines dominate the episode, but in “Willie Pete” we just have kicked up character drama, some of which was okay and interesting, but most of which honestly felt a little tired.
I thought we closed the book on “what did you say in the voicemail,” but we had to re-open that discussion again. And why? To reintroduce more romantic conflict for Mac and Will. It’s funny – I know there are tons of criticisms on Mac’s character. I’ve given her plenty of the benefit of the doubt – maybe because I like the actress. There were many other moments in this episode and in this season thus far where I feel like Mac has redeemed herself – you’re seeing her smarts, the cogs in her brain working. She really has taken on a motherly and authoritative role at News Night – watching out for her news team with a certain level of compassion, but having the professional wherewithal to offer criticism and resistance when her doubting instincts kick in. We see her consistently show shreds of doubt in Dantana (even though, yes, she ultimately allows the charade to hunt for Genoa to continue). But then she pulls off the petty “what did the rest of the voicemail say” crap to Will, and then later to good ol’ Nina Howard, who was ready to leak the voicemail and, conveniently, the fact that Will purposefully stepped down from the 9/11 broadcast. It definitely felt very much like the re-hash was a makeshift device to create this drama where it didn’t need to be. I mean, yeah, there were moments that were kinda funny in this whole ordeal, with Will pleading to Nina to kill the story about him not having the flu during the 9/11 show (Nina’s reaction to the RIDICULOUS set up for them to meet was on point – “am i going to be murdered?”) and then Nina waxing poetic about how true and romantic Will’s voicemail was. Of course she remembered “every word,” and of course Mac had to feel a “connection” with Nina, enough to call her out of the blue and thank her for killing the story exposing Will’s fake flu JUST AFTER Nina and Will consummated their lust. Such an overly calculated set of circumstances to introduce a weird roadblock between Will and Mac’s deep seated, “true” love for each other. It makes Mac silly and unlikeable, and this is the biggest disappointment of all in the episode for me.
Aside from that, we’re trifled with a silly witch hunt for who leaked Will’s fake flu to Nina Howard, a.k.a. opportunity for Jeff Daniels to do some scary yelling acting. The kind of fun and interesting part about this (but also the most outlandish part) is Sloan and Don’s involvement in the witch hunt. Now that Maggie is safely a non-option for Don (and this is making me breathe easier when it comes to Don now), Sloan is slowly snaking her way into his radar. They have a kind of fun chemistry – Sloan is so rigid, but witty, and Don has the smarts but is more dynamic in their interactions. They par well with their quips. But of COURSE Sloan just happened to be invited to a wedding with a book agent on the weekend of the 9/11 show, and that book agent just so HAPPENED to be Nina Howard’s book agent. Too much perfect coincidence for my book, but whatever. We get Sloan’s little “I think I’m the leak, and I need to tell Will.” We also get hints of Sloan and Don seeing things eye to eye, when he agrees with Sloan wanting to warn the public about drones during her econ-themed news show. I think I like what’s happening here between them, and I wonder if this means Don is going to start being Sloan’s producer (which will surely add color to their chemistry) or they’ll continue to cross show lines and create tension between each other and everyone around them in that way.
Then there’s the continued pursuit for the scoop on Genoa. Mac goes with Dantana to meet with supposed retiree Sweeney, who claims to have been part of the operation. Mac listens intently to his generic details about the devastation – of course, the kind of stuff you’d expect to feed Dantana’s salivating excitement. Thankfully, Mac continues to resist the story after meeting with Sweeney, and Charlie agrees. They make great points as far as criticizing the source – something that traumatizing would be burned in his memory, and he couldn’t give concrete dates or names or any real details. Dantana asks to pursue the leads Sweeney gives for more sources and info, and Mac lets him so long as he does it “quietly.” Of course Dantana the braggadaccio that he is recruits a team of 5 interns or APs, whatever they are, and makes a loud announcement and tries to take command. They start calling numbers, and Maggie joins in pursuing tweets from that time and getting them translated by a guy who’ll only send faxes. (FAXES?!?!) This arc remains largely unexciting until suddenly many faxes pop in with tweets describing “Gas,” “Helicopters, Grenades,” and “Willie Pete” – a.k.a. white phosphorous. Mac and Charlie were JUST about to pull the plug on Dantana’s story and of course they witness these tweet translations coming in. And now their curiosity is stricken, and they will give Dantana more opportunity to take everyone down the rabbit hole. The great thing about all this is – and I still think this storytelling technique works – we already know things go terribly wrong. I wish more movement happened, or at least in a more exciting way, but to see how much doubt is shed, and how little things build up Dantana is still intriguing. We’re seeing all the points where the runaway train could’ve stopped, and at least for me there’s a part of me rooting for Dantana to be shut down. This wasn’t a highlight of the episode, but it still works for me, for now.
Odds and ends? All I have to say is Maggie is just fast becoming a disappointment. It sucks because I love Allison Pill – I’ve seen her on stage 3 times (once, actually, alongside Jeff Daniels in a two-man play called Blackbird) and she shines when given a great role to act. Maggie is in flux for me – I’m very interested to see what happens to her in Africa, but watching her lead up to that point is kind of a mess. I understand she’s supposed to be hungry and naive in this industry, but I can’t imagine her being so naive to not even look into the vaccines and medicines she has to take to go to Africa. Can someone really be so blinded by ambition to completely ignore health things? And Maggie’s overreaction to the side effects of her pill were also ridiculous, childish really. I’d expect more out of her. But I guess we’re building up this persona for her so that she has something to really sober to when “things get real” in Africa.
And Jim on the campaign trail -this actually is still interesting to me. I loved seeing Jim challenging the campaign spokeswoman, and it was funny to have people point out that he may be a studio producer, but he doesn’t know how the game works. His standing up to the campaign bus was maybe too idealistic and altruistic, but it was still a joy to see that passion and hunger to dig deep and challenge our political leaders. Maybe we all can take a tip from Jim.
All in all, not my favorite episode this season. But maybe now that some more things are in place, we can fast forward a little next week.